Morrie set to welcome Royal Oak diners – summer
In an exclusive interview with the Free Press on Tuesday, representatives of AFB Hospitality Group outlined their plan and vision for the Morrie, a 240-seat roadhouse-style restaurant and live music venue coming to the southeast corner of Sixth and Main Street in downtown Royal Oak this summer.
According to AFB owner and proprietor Aaron F. Belen, the project signifies close to $4 million in total investment for his company, including a reported $2-million purchase price of the 8,000-square-foot space that formerly housed the Franklin Fine Wine store.
“The branding behind the Morrie is as an eclectic neighborhood roadhouse that has that warm, comfortable feeling as if you’re going to see your grandfather,” said AFB Director of Operations Scott Sadoff.
The Morrie is named after Morrie Fenkell, Belen’s grandfather who died of pancreatic cancer in 2007.
“He was my best friend and business mentor,” Belen, 33, said. “Unfortunately, he isn’t here to see this, but it’s a way to pay homage to him.”
Early reports of the development last summer erroneously dubbed the forthcoming restaurant as a place for older people, but Sadoff was quick to dispel that as a misrepresentation. Rather, the Morrie is designed to be a comfortable, family-friendly food hall with live entertainment designed to lure repeat customers from the neighborhood.
“Our goal is to be the best on Main Street in Royal Oak at an approachable price and with a comfortable atmosphere,” Belen said. “You can come in wearing sweats or a business suit.”
Added Sadoff, 34: “Bistro 82 has become a destination, but we really wanted something that’s going to serve the Royal Oak community. We wanted to open this cool, casual spot that includes the neighborhood.”
Much of the Morrie’s draw will center on the culinary offerings of executive chef Derik Watson, who will oversee the kitchen and menu simultaneously with Bistro 82, where he has earned praise for his technique-driven French fare.
Watson, 35, sounded excited about the prospect of a second kitchen. “It will have every missing piece that we didn’t have at Bistro 82 to round out our ability to do anything,” he said.
A prime example: The Morrie will be equipped with an imported Italian steam-injection stone oven for baking bread. The pastry department, headed up by Kenneth Ilich, a third-generation baker, will be based in the Morrie and serve both restaurants.
The Morrie menu wasn’t available yet, but Watson said diners can expect items such as smoked chicken wings, a small selection of oysters, a play on crab Rangoon with Michigan trout in place of the crab, burgers and sandwiches with house-baked buns and a loaded potato section of six to eight offerings — waffle fries topped with smoked brisket, for example, or kimchi and pork belly-smothered fries topped with a fried egg.
The casual new spot will signify a bit of a departure for Watson, who earned his bones in fine-dining restaurants working under acclaimed chef Takashi Yagihashi in Chicago and at the former Tribute restaurant in Farmington Hills.
The more casual fare doesn’t mean the quality will suffer, though, Watson said.
“This is a true from-scratch kitchen,” he said.
Aside from the food, another centerpiece of the new restaurant is a stage for live performers. AFB also runs Sabrage nightclub above Bistro 82, and Belen and company are leveraging music industry contacts they’ve made through booking DJs for that venue to lure rock ‘n’ roll, country and jazz acts to the Morrie, which will also feature a dance floor. There’s even a private green room above the kitchen for acts to lounge in before and after their sets.
“We’re really going to provide top, Michigan-based live music and an opportunity for these individuals to showcase their skills,” Belen said.
The building was sprayed with a noise-reducing insulation designed to improve acoustics. Belen said he probably wouldn’t have made that additional investment had he not owned the building — a unique position for restaurateurs, who more typically lease space from landlords.
The group also owns the building’s attached 25-car parking lot — a rarity for Royal Oak. It will be reserved for Morrie customers.
Ahead of a planned midsummer opening, AFB will be growing its staff, doubling from its current 76 employees to somewhere between 150 and 175, Sadoff said.
The Morrie will initially be open seven days a week for dinner only. Sunday brunch is a possibility down the road.